Why Every Art Should Aspire To The Condition of Writing
100 Days, 100 Blogs, 100 Moments, 100 Lives (#3)
Author’s Note : This is the third installment in my 100 days, 100 blogs challenge.
I have always had a weirdly intense relationship with the written word.
As a kid, Ruskin Bond’s dew drenched prose about cozy Himalayan towns was my gateway into what life in those sleepy towns should look like. Never mind that my actual childhood was being spent in those very towns, and everything Bond wrote about was right there in front of my eyes to feel and experience.
And feel and experience I did. But it was heavily laden and painted with notions and imaginations that Mr. Bond had infused in my head through his words.
The experience was always mine. But it was heavily tinged by the words I read.
The impact was not always this dramatic. Sometimes it was mundane and rather stupid. For instance, there is a point early on in Harry Potter and Sorcerer’s Stone where Dursleys are hiding away to avoid letters for Harry from Hogwarts. At this point, Rowling’s deft touch introduces a prosaic but visceral detail to add to the atmospherics. It is a throwaway reference, but essential for a reader’s complete (subconscious) investment in the story dynamics.
The detail: “They ate stale cornflakes and cold tinned tomatoes on toast for breakfast the next day”
It is perhaps another testament to Rowling’s genius that even to this date, cold tomatoes on toast continue to be my favorite breakfast.
Or perhaps, it is testament to my own personal insanity.
Thank God, my subconscious skipped the stale cornflakes. Or else I would be staring at a long, hard life ahead, punctuated by frequent bouts of stomach aches and diarrhea.
Also, it is small mercies that here in India, we are still way too much into fresh produce and tinned tomatoes are not a regular household item. And so, in my version of Rowling’s breakfast, tinned tomatoes get replaced by freshly diced and mildly salted tomatoes. Which probably makes the whole thing a lot less icky than Rowling intended it to be.
That, however, is not the point.
The point is, given a chance (which is a crucial proviso, given the fact that reading is and has forever been a minority hobby) words tend to have a profound impact, even if you are not insane enough to have your breakfast choices dictated by them. (Or you know, get more pleasure out of reading about your favorite TV shows than actually watching them)
“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.”
— J.K Rowling
There is a story by Anton Chekhov called The Bet which is a tale about a banker and a young lawyer who make a bet with each other about whether the death penalty is better or worse than life in prison. The young lawyer agrees to spend 15 years in isolation to prove his point, with nothing for company but books and a piano.
While the story essentially is a quiet observation of how a man loses himself to the world of books, it is the climax which is an absolute masterpiece. Via a scintillating monologue couched as a letter, Chekhov pays a fitting homage to the power of books, and the world they can open up for us.
When I started this piece, I had presumed I will be writing about how words are perhaps the only kind of magic in this world that can create feelings and emotions and sensations and wisdom and beauty and pretty much the whole Universe out of thin air, with nothing more than intent and imagination. Words can make a blind man see the greenish purple tinge of a withering autumn leaf; can make a deaf person listen to ethereal melodies where strings dance like a trilling cacophony of birds and cymbals crash like the waves on the sea shore; can make a mute person talk through poetic prose that pours out of her soul and drenches the blank paper.
But of course, that was before I remembered Chekhov and his Bet.
And so, here is what the Master had to say on the subject.
“It is true I have not seen the earth nor men, but in your books I have drunk fragrant wine, I have sung songs, I have hunted stags and wild boars in the forests, have loved women. . . . Beauties as ethereal as clouds, created by the magic of your poets and geniuses, have visited me at night, and have whispered in my ears wonderful tales that have set my brain in a whirl. In your books I have climbed to the peaks of Elburz and Mont Blanc, and from there I have seen the sun rise and have watched it at evening flood the sky, the ocean, and the mountain-tops with gold and crimson. I have watched from there the lightning flashing over my head and cleaving the storm-clouds. I have seen green forests, fields, rivers, lakes, towns. I have heard the singing of the sirens, and the strains of the shepherds’ pipes; I have touched the wings of comely devils who flew down to converse with me of God. . . . In your books I have flung myself into the bottomless pit, performed miracles, slain, burned towns, preached new religions, conquered whole kingdoms. . . . Your books have given me wisdom. All that the unresting thought of man has created in the ages is compressed into a small compass in my brain. I know that I am wiser than all of you.”
— Anton Chekhov in The Bet
The Walter Pater quote that inspired the title of this post says, “All art aspires to the condition of music”, presumably because music is perhaps the only form of art where there is a visceral and ethereal unification of the subject matter and form. And while I completely agree with Pater on the undeniable beauty of music and the power it exerts as an art form, and do not deny that every art aspiring for the condition of music is a noble idea, this quote has still always bothered me as according something exclusively to music, when writing was right there to share the glory.
Music is ethereal. Writing is magic. Music can trigger emotions. Writing can create them. Music is complete. Writing completes everything. Music will make you feel. Writing can make you feel, think, believe, question, answer or wonder. Music is. Writing can be whatever you want it to be.
Music can rarely invoke a piece of writing. A piece of writing can, however, invoke music in a jiffy.
Music is…well…music. Writing can be music, art, architecture, a delicious slice of cake, the aroma of your grandma’s long forgotten kitchen, perfume of a lover’s memories, grace of a dancer’s dream, a long endless road, a stretch in dense woods, a forgotten page in History, a lost piece of Geography, a piece of someone’s heart.
I don’t deny what music is. But I do humbly submit, with due regards to my own bias as a writer, that writing is an art that is the zenith of all arts, the art where every other art form can find its expression, the art that is complete, in every sense of that word. And if arts were to aspire, they should aspire to be what writing is.
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